NBA teams with longest active playoff droughts, and ranking their chances of returning to postseason first


The 2020 NBA playoffs were originally scheduled to tip off over the weekend. Instead, the state of the season and the short-term future of the league are up in the air as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put the sports world on pause. While there’s no postseason to speak of at the moment, now’s as good a time as any to look at the teams in the league who won’t be participating in the playoffs when — or if — the season restarts, and examine which ones are closest to getting back to the postseason.

As it stands, the Sacramento Kings hold the longest active playoff drought in the league at 13 years, followed by the Phoenix Suns at 10. The New York Knicks round out the top three with seven playoff-less years. Below is a look at the teams with the longest active playoff droughts, ranked by their chances of making it back to the postseason first. 

1. Phoenix Suns

Despite the 26 wins, the Phoenix Suns actually made valuable progress this season. First-year head coach Monty Williams had the Suns playing their best basketball since the last time they made the playoffs in 2010. That might not be saying much given their record, but considering the Suns ranked 28th in the league a season ago in offensive rating (105.3), and improved to 16th in the league (110.2) in just a year, that’s a significant growth for a team that’s ranked so poorly recently. 

Signing Aron Baynes and Ricky Rubio in the summer of 2019 provided Phoenix with some valuable talent to surround budding star Devin Booker. Even though Kelly Oubre’s season was cut short due to a meniscus tear in his right knee, he was averaging a career-high 19 points prior to that. Also, despite Ayton’s season being derailed by a 25-game suspension, he was averaging a double-double (19 points, 12 rebounds) when he returned to the court.

In the short amount of time that Phoenix had the lineup of Booker, Rubio, Oubre, Ayton and Mikal Bridges healthy, it outscored opponents by 20.2 points per 100 possessions. Aside from Rubio, the rest of that core is 24 years or younger, which gives the Suns an actual chance to build a playoff team with those pieces. Despite being in the tough-as-nails Western Conference, the Suns have the right combination of a young star to build around, quality role players who can share the load and a head coach who looks like he could lead the team to their first playoff appearance in a decade. It may not happen next year, but it’s a lot closer than the rest of the teams on this list. 

2. Sacramento Kings

The Kings have some talent that could make a push for the playoffs soon, and right before the season was postponed they were knocking on the door in the West. A critical move that Sacramento made in the last 20 games before the hiatus was moving Buddy Hield to the bench in favor of Bogdan Bogdanovic. That switch gave the Kings a plus-2.2 net rating, which was higher than the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz during that span. It’s a small sample to work with, but with Bogdanovic set to become a restricted free agent this summer, moving him into the starting lineup likely helped Sacramento in contract negotiations down the line. 

After potentially re-signing Bogdanovic this offseason, the Kings will have him, Fox, Hield and Bagley secured for the foreseeable future, and that’s before even getting to the fact that Sacramento has a wealth of draft picks to play with in the future. Through several trades, the Kings are owed five future draft picks, and surprisingly, don’t owe anyone else any picks going forward. That’s a great spot to be in for a franchise that has the longest active playoff drought in the league.

The are a couple of downsides, though. Bagley’s health should be a bit of a concern as he only played in 14 games this season due to a sprained left foot. There’s also no guarantee that Sacramento keeps Bogdanovic if the asking price gets too high. It also doesn’t help that Kings owner Vivek Ranadive has been vocal this season in his frustration with the front office and the coaching staff. It hasn’t amounted to any changes yet, but perhaps a shake-up in the front office could be the thing the Kings need to get over the hump and end their playoff drought soon.

3. Chicago Bulls

A lot has changed for the Bulls during this hiatus, with the franchise firing long time general manager Gar Forman and bringing in a new head of basketball operations. These were much-needed moves for a franchise that has missed the postseason for the past three years, and was headed to miss it again in 2019-20. The Bulls’ chances of making the playoffs is predicated on two things: who they hire as their next GM, and what happens with head coach Jim Boylen. 

On paper, the Bulls should have the best chances at making it back to the postseason before any other team on this list. Zach LaVine was touching All-Star status, rookie Coby White emerged as a scoring machine down the stretch, and when he was healthy, Kris Dunn was one of the top defensive players in the league. But this season was filled with injuries and missteps that pushed them further away from the postseason. Lauri Markkanen, for instance, took a significant step back from his second season in the league. Although he was hampered with injuries along the way, he played roughly the same number of games he did the season before and was far more effective two years ago.

Lauri Markkanen averages

2018-19

52

18.7

9.0

43.0%

36.1%

2019-20

50

14.7

6.3

42.5%

34.4%

Still, this group of players has the potential to end its playoff drought soon, but only if the Bulls are led by a different coach. Throughout the season there were reports of issues with the way the Bulls played, Markkanen not liking the way he was being used and Boylen often clashing with LaVine. When the Bulls were at their best this season, they were a stingy defensive team, which ranked fifth in the league at one point, but had issues getting consistent offensive production from several players on the other end of the floor. 

Barring any trades, Chicago is locked into this team for the next few years. It has the potential to sneak into the playoffs in the East with the talent on this roster, but a change is needed at the head-coaching position for that to happen. With a new regime taking over in the front office, maybe that happens, if not, the Bulls could end up moving further down this list.

4. Atlanta Hawks

It’s still too early to tell what a competitive Hawks team will look like, even with Trae Young’s All-Star ascension this season. John Collins proved to be a worthy running mate alongside Young, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds after serving a 25-game suspension. However, the ruling is still out on rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Hunter had an impressive campaign, and lived up the tough defender label he was given heading into the draft. Reddish, however, has been incredibly inconsistent with his shot all season, so it’s hard to imagine right now how valuable he’ll be to the Hawks in the future. 

What the Hawks do have, though, is a ton of future cap space. That could change due to the league’s postponement and lingering question marks over what the cap could look like next season. However, before the hiatus, Atlanta was set to have the most cap space of any team in the league heading into the 2020 offseason with about $51 million. The upcoming free agency class isn’t filled with a ton of stars, but there’s still plenty of quality players who the Hawks could throw money at. 

The Hawks also have time on their side. Young isn’t due for a rookie-scale extension until the summer of 2021, which he’ll likely sign, giving Atlanta four-to-five more years to build around him and get back to the playoffs. However, in the age of player empowerment it would be beneficial for the Hawks to build a playoff team sooner rather than later before Young becomes impatient and decides he can’t win with that franchise.

5. Charlotte Hornets

  • 2019-20 record: 23-42
  • Players on CBS Sports’ Top 100: N/A
  • Active playoff drought: 4 years

The Hornets went into the season thinking Terry Rozier was going to be their best player, and entered the league hiatus with Devonte’ Graham as their most effective player. Rookie PJ Washington also emerged as someone the Hornets could potentially build around, but the team is still without a surefire star player like the one they lost in Kemba Walker last offseason.

Since Charlotte over-performed this season, it likely won’t be granted a high lottery pick, which isn’t ideal for a team that is very much still rebuilding. Even with Graham and Washington proving everyone wrong this season, the rest of Charlotte’s roster doesn’t move the needle at all. On the bright side, though, Nicolas Batum’s contract comes off the books in 2021, and Bismack Biyombo’s $72 million deal ends this summer, giving the Hornets a light at the end of tunnel out of those bad contracts. 

If Graham and Washington continue to improve into next season, then Charlotte moves up this list. For right now, it’s low on the totem pole in getting back to the postseason. 

6. New York Knicks

  • 2019-20 record: 21-45
  • Players on CBS Sports’ Top 100: Julius Randle
  • Active playoff drought: 7 years

The Knicks have gone through so many rebuilds it’s hard to keep count. As the franchise searches for another new head coach and a new general manager, there’s even more questions now surrounding where this team goes from here. In recent weeks, reports have surfaced that newly hired president of basketball operations Leon Rose is willing to trade Julius Randle, who just signed a three-year deal with New York last offseason. Rose also said recently that he’s not sure if Kevin Knox is in the franchise’s plan for the future. 

At this point, it’s anyone’s guess what the Knicks have planned for the future. What makes it more painfully obvious that they’re not close to reaching the postseason soon is the fact that this entire section up to this point was spent talking about the front office instead of anything happening on the court with the players. 

The two positives that the Knicks have going for them, though, is rookie RJ Barrett and a ton of draft capital. It’s still too early to tell what Barrett could become, but his average of 14.3 points this season is the most scored by a Knicks rookie since Kristaps Porzingis in 2015-16. 

As far as draft picks go, the Knicks are owed six future picks that will pay out over the next three years. They may continue to miss out on free agents until this franchise has at least put together a winning season, but at least they’ll have all those draft picks to use in hopes of finding one or two players who can become the future face of the franchise. 





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